Interview: Aaron Greenberg, on Kinect core games, flailing


Can you tell us about the decision to have these two separate events and what the Natal event is really supposed to accomplish from a media perspective, that tomorrow's press conference won't be able to do?

For us, this is a really special year. It was ten years ago that we unveiled the original Xbox and this is actually my tenth, and our tenth, E3. It's the beauty of our business. This will be the biggest year in the history of Xbox and really as we thought about E3, we've never had this much to share at one E3 as we do this year. We've taken a very non-traditional approach to E3. I think with what we're doing with Natal and working with Cirque du Soleil to bring that to life is a whole new way to tell a story.
We think that Natal is that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to entertain and delight our current owners and people who come to E3 but also to capture the attention and imagination of a whole broader set of consumers and media that don't usually pay attention to E3 or to our industry. And we think Natal has that unique universal appeal, and partnering with Cirque du Soleil on this was really a very natural fit from the very beginning. They are some of the very best entertainers in the world. And as we think about Natal and think about the sights and sounds and motion, and the focus on you being the controller, Cirque really being so much about human performance and their very unique ability to entertain and bring human performance to life, it was a perfect fit.

And they were our dream partner from the very beginning. We know that they get approached by all kinds of people – thousands of calls they tell us, all the time, so we're really lucky, frankly, that they chose this project. And we're honored to be working with them on the scale that we are. And we think they're the ideal partner to unveil Natal and these experiences on Sunday night.

What kind of specifics are we going to see at the show? Is it a general entertainment experience, Natal-themed? Or are we going to see actual games, actual hardware, actual "Natal experiences"?

We've really left this in their full creative control, but it's about unveiling the name and the experiences with the world for the first time ever, in a very entertaining way. It's an interactive event, you may have heard that we're calling it a "technology-free event." So from that standpoint, there's no photos, no video, no liveblogging, all that kind of stuff. Just like if you went to a normal Cirque show. But in this case what's different is that they've spent a lot of time with Natal and the experiences, the technology, and that truly guided their creativity about how they're bringing this to life in a new way.

So it's interactive; the audience participates in the show. And it's really a story about a journey; there's actually a hero boy that goes on a journey. It's hard to describe it with words, but the best way I would describe it is that it's about going back to a moment in time, really before technology existed. And that's the magic of Natal: Instead of us learning to use the technology, the technology adapts to us and kind of disappears. The story and the journey, and how this is brought to life in a really entertaining way, is unique and one-of-a-kind.

So I'd really think of Sunday night as an entertainment experience. It's massive in scale. It's a one-of-a-kind Cirque experience that you've never seen before and you'll never see again. It's just built for E3. We're doing it on Sunday night for 3000 media partners. We'll also have a lot of celebrities and families coming, so we've encouraged celebrities to bring their kids and things like that. A kind of "who's who" of Hollywood. So there will be 3000 people who do that on Sunday night and then an encore on Monday night for 3000 consumers back at the Galen, and then it kind of disappears.

We are creating a thirty minute special that will air on MTV and Nickelodeon on Tuesday. It's a commercial-free special that's made for TV, from the actual experience. And that's at 3:30 on Tuesday on MTV and 9 on Nickelodeon, on Nick at Nite. And that's really what happens around the Cirque experience. And we wlll do our media briefing, as you know, at the Wiltern. And that's where you'll see our execs on stage. That's where we'll really talk about our core games lineup and new Live experiences, and we'll obviously talk about Live as well. That's where we'll really tell the whole story.

You said the Sunday night experience was "interactive." Does that mean "participate from your seats" or will this be interactive with the hardware?

Not with the hardware, no. But it will be interactive from a performance standpoint, exactly. It's a true Cirque experience from beginning to end. So, the exception would be that, because they're bringing to life and unveiling a lot of the experiences and the games and things like that, it doesn't have a lot of what you would think of as acrobatics and things like that. There are some. It's massive in scale, it has original Cirque music. They've got a whole pre-show. It's very interactive. The audience is actually part of the performance.

In fact, there's elements that they've designed with all 3000 members as part of the performance. It's very, very unique and one-of-a-kind. And they're very passionate about that. I can tell you from spending many days and weekends and trips up in Montreal over the last few months, that they have a unique ability to entertain. They have a universal appeal to entertain people, from my parents and my grandparents, to children to guys like us who love games and technology. So we think they're really a perfect partner.

We're just over 24 hours away from unveiling the name to people and I've noticed that you don't seem to have any hesitation calling it "Natal" still. You've been calling it that for a long time. I'm wondering, internally, if you still call it Natal or if you've been trying the new name out, seeing how it fits. And then if you've been following the conjecture about names online, and what you think of that.

We have been using "Natal" and we have been keeping the real name confidential. We are now starting to use the real name in the speeches, assets, etc. as we do final rehearsals. That's been part of our plan from the beginning. The nice thing is we love the name. I think it'll make sense when you see it. For us, that come to E3 and cover this industry, it will be an easy transition to the new name.

And for the broader set of consumers and media that don't really pay attention to our industry as much, in many ways this will be the way they get introduced to Natal for the first time ever. We think about advertising, we think about the Cirque show and unveiling the name there. And from that moment on, it will be the real name. And it's exciting to bring it to life in the way that we are. And to invite thousands of people here to experience it and then the people at home to watch the unveiling of the name on a scale that we've never done before.

Some people are convinced it's going to be called Kinect. Have you heard that one?

I have not. (Update: Bwah?) You know, I haven't kept up on the rumors; I've heard a bunch of names.

There was "Wave" also, that was popular.

Yeah, yeah. We've seen that.

Or Kinect is a Microsoft trademark for the "Kin" which makes sense.

You could give me ten names, obviously we're not giving any feedback on bad, good, hot, warm, or cold.

I tell you what: If it's Kinect, just nod twice.

Sunday night I promise you you will know what the real name is.

Is Natal going to be a big part of the media briefing on Monday morning as well, or are you splitting Natal off onto this Sunday night / Monday night event?

It is going to be part of the media briefing. The way we think about the media briefing is like what we did last year: it's everything. It's core games, it's Xbox Live experiences, and it's Natal. So it's all of those together. I think what's different is that we're kicking off E3 with a one-of-a-kind show. If you think about Blockbuster games, we've never had a lineup like we do this year. We've never had things like Halo and Gears and Fable, all at E3 all at the same time. And we're really celebrating those games all week. A blockbuster games lineup, and obviously some other surprises up our sleeves. We're doing a dedicated event for Halo Tuesday night. We're doing a dedicated event for things like Gears and Fable on Wednesday night. If you come to the booth, you'll see we've got a massive lineup of core games. We've got a dedicated theater for things like Halo and Gears.

There is absolutely no sacrifice at all for our core games experience. In fact, hands down, we have a better core games lineup at E3 this year than we've ever had before. Same for Live – a lot of great Live innovation that we'll be sharing as well. And then the Natal stuff. We're going to be allowing people to get hands-on and be able to play, and be able to know that it's here, it's real and it works. Really delivering on a lof of the promises that we made last year when we unveiled the technology and showed some tech demos. Now we get to really show you the real games and the real name.


Have you seen the Parade Magazine video making the rounds on YouTube?

I did. Yeah. Awesome. Just totally, hysterically awesome.

Have you seen the rave version of it?

Yes, oh yes. We've all watched those. And we all laughed. You've gotta love the internets.

Do you think videos like that, and the perception that it's a lot of flailing, harms the Natal image? Do you think that's representative of Natal gameplay? Or simply that the gameplay looks like flailing but you've got to play it. How do you guys read something like that?

To be honest, the Parade story itself is a lifestyle piece that is read by tens of millions – I think it even reaches like 100 million Sunday papers – it's very very broad appeal. It's something a non-gaming audience reads, so it's good to introduce this technology, Natal; despite all that we've done over the last year, the awareness levels are stlll low for Natal given that we haven't shown real games, we haven't announced the name and kind of made it real. We'll make it real at E3 and things like the Parade story are a great way to talk to that broader audience.

"There is absolutely no sacrifice at all for our core games experience."


The YouTube stuff, on the one hand, I think people go off and make a bunch of videos. I think about the videos that people made last year of Kudo's foot – the "bam, there it is!" To me, it's all subjective on how people interpret that. I'm of the school that I think the more discussions, the more conversation, the more people are clicking, linking, talking, having fun with this, I think it's better. You're generating conversations, you're generating thoughts and reactions. I'd rather have that than a silent nothing. Did anyone hear this? Is anyone talking? Is there any reaction? We'll get a variety of reactions, but when people really get in and play and get hands-on you'll see that it's pretty magical and the games look great. The experiences are awesome. And it works! I think people will be pretty surprised.

Does Natal have to ship with software to be successful. Obviously, Wii shipped with Wii Sports which helped explain and educate users, and I would say even developers, on how to use the system. Does Natal need a similar experience? Software out of the box to help you use it? The Xbox UI can be controlled by it, so that will help people use it ...

How we sell the product and what it comes with and all that, we haven't announced those details yet. But what I can tell you is that we're very thoughtful of this being a great out-of-the-box experience for not just our current users but also new buyers. We think there will be a set of consumers that will buy an Xbox for Natal. And so for them it has to be simple, fun, easy to use and allow them to instantly jump into the experiences. We're very thoughtful of that. But the exact details and how that works, we haven't announced.

Are you planning a simultaneous worldwide release for Natal, or will it be staggered in different regions?

We are planning on launching Natal this holiday worldwide.

You talked about a lot of the big core games at E3 this year, they're all sequels: Gears 3, Halo Reach, Fable 3. Are we going to be seeing new IP announcements, or are you going to be focusing on the newest installments of your biggest franchises?

I think we're going to focus a lot on blockbusters. We'll obviously premiere a number of things like we usually do. It will be across first- and third-party. But beyond that I'd rather save the surprises for the show.

There's some images of new Xbox box art making the rounds. It looks like a slight refinement of the current branding. Is that anything related to Natal or to E3 plans, or is that a natural evolutionary process you're always doing with the brand?

Well, I think what we've done from a marketing standpoint this year at E3, is unlike anything we've ever done before. Because what we basically said is that we see E3 as a kickoff of not just what we're doing and reaching media and doing debriefings, but it's also the kickoff of our consumer campaign. I think you're starting to see some of the elements that will be brought to life as we unveil the name. As we unveil all sorts of new things. And how that translates not just here at E3 but as we think about broader consumers and products, etc. We see E3 as when we light that fuse as we head to holiday for a lot of these products. And I think you're seeing better coordination on our side than we've had in the past.

We want you to make the Aaron Greenberg Promise™ - the AGP we'll call it – that there's going to be at least one game at E3 that makes the average core gamer need Natal. I know you've said before that you're making Natal-exclusive experiences and that they'll intentionally appeal to a casual audience. Will there also be games that really appeal to core gamers?

Our focus for core gamers is to not take away what they love, and that's controller-based games. So we're going to continue to invest there and I think you'll see that with our lineup. And I think the experiences we do online for Xbox Live will very much do that. I hesitate to make promises that I guarantee there will be things that you'll love. I believe there will be but I would love to hear people's thoughts after they see the games and the experiences. I think what makes them special is that they really do have universal appeal. It's not just for casual users. I really think that what we're bringing with Natal is a good variety of things that will delight the core and current owners as well bring in newer audiences.

"At a high level, it's enabled us to bring in new experiences to the platform."


That said, you'll see that our approach is not to take your favorite core franchises and remove the controller. We'll building new, unique experiences for this. That's our focus: It's additive. "I love my Xbox because it has all the best games, the leading online community, and great entertainment with Xbox Live. And now it also has all these great new controller-free experiences on top of that. So it's additive on top of what's there. As a current owner, I think that's great. You may find that for core gamers, they may still spend more of their time playing controller games, but more casual users may go controller free. But I do think the appeal of a lot of the products are pretty broad and universal.

You mentioned earlier that Xbox Live is one of the areas you've historically focused on during your media briefings. We obviously just had the termination of Xbox Live support for original Xbox games. What kind of things has that enabled? Losing that legacy support that has, in some ways, tied Xbox 360's Live architecture to the original framework of the original Xbox Live offering.

At a high level, it's enabled us to bring in new experiences to the platform. We haven't announced what those things are, but they're definitely going to bring new experiences. Other than that, I can't give any more specifics.

Was it always known that the original platform support was a limiting factor? Was it a balance: how quickly can you phase that out? Was it even a question of phasing it out, or was it a technical question of trying to circumvent those limitations?

The way the original platform was designed, a lot of the Xbox Live functionality was hard-coded into the games. So the beauty of the Xbox 360 is that we built Live into the platform so it was universal and was easy to grow with that. We built it in a way that allowed back-compat support and we supported that for a number of years, but now that people have really transitioned the need to continue to provide that back-compat support for Live has just dwindled away. So for us to not have to worry about that and to sort of now have unlimited potential in the types of new features we want to bring to life brought us a lot of great flexibility. I mean, there's tons of testing and restrictions that we had to deal with because of the original architecture that we're just free from today as we think about new features.

So that's a huge benefit to us, to relieved of that burden. We know what was left there was a lot of people playing Halo 2, as the game that really started multiplayer gaming for millions of people. But Halo 3 took off, and ODST took off, and here we just had the beta for Halo Reach and Reach coming this holiday, we just felt like there's plenty of Halo out there now on 360 and those communities have grown in the millions. We felt like it was the right time to do that.

That's a good point, watching the upgrade trends: As those Halo 2 players start to adopt 360 and adopt any number of Halo offerings there. I guess that responsibility is lessened then.

Yup.

It wouldn't be an Aaron Greenberg question about Xbox if I didn't ask you my go-to question ...

*laughs*

... of how the negotiations with the fine folks at Hulu are going and if we're ever going to see that service materialize on the platform.

Yeah, I've read a lot of rumors about that online.

The internet seems to be really interested in that, I don't know why.

Yeah, it does. And I think it's all your fault. *laughs*

So ... we have nothing to announce at this time. I'll just give a less exciting answer than the one I gave last time. It's been fun answering this question over and over and over.

I'll have to go back and find each one of your answers.

This might be the worst one yet.

Thanks for your time, Aaron!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.